Henry V is traditionally one of the great national heroes of English history. Shakespeare's play based on his life has contributed to this image. But the play actually questions what heroism is all about. Such questions arise naturally out of the story of Henry V.
Little is known of the first third of Henry's life. His exact birth date is unknown. The date was not recorded because Henry's birth was not seen as all that important. His father Henry Bolingbroke was merely a powerful noble when young Henry was born, and it would take a few twists of fate before Henry Bolingbroke found himself on the throne of England as Henry IV. So historians date Henry V's birth vaguely to the summer of 1387, and more confidently give his place of birth as the Great Tower at Monmouth Castle. His childhood was spent in the household of his father travelling from castle to castle, supervising large land holdings. The boy seems to have loved hunting. One little glimmer of detail is provided by the fact that he was praised by a Benedictine monk close to the household for his punctuality in attending mass.
Early in 1399 Henry Bolingbroke was exiled to France by Richard II, following a dispute with Thomas Mowbray, in which both accused the other of treachery. King Richard initially tried to calm the young men down, but when they continued in their accusations, he doubted both of them, and sent them into exile to cool off. Meanwhile Bolingbroke's son, young Henry of Monmouth remained behind in Richard's court, where the boy had to tread carefully between loyalty to his father and to the king. He spent a year with Richard, completing his short education. There was music, dancing, poetry performed by Chaucer, luxurious food, and no doubt for Henry, constant worry. But it is probable that young Henry was well looked after, and seemed to retain an admiration for Richard through all the trouble to come. This trouble began in 1399 when Bolingbroke's father John of Gaunt died. Richard responded by seizing all Gaunt's lands, which meant that Bolingbroke, still exiled in France, had now been disinherited. This was later presented as a highhanded crime - when in fact there is evidence that Richard was holding the lands only as a guarantee of Henry's future loyalty. It should also be remembered that at this time Henry Bolingbroke was technically a traitor, the worst kind of criminal that medieval England had. Whatever the truth of the dispute between Richard and Henry Bolingbroke, the seizing of Gaunt's lands infuriated much of England's turbulent nobility, who had a general distrust for Richard's artistic, and relatively peaceful personality. It was just at this critical moment that Richard decided to head off to Ireland with virtually all his supporters to put down rebellion there. A few weeks later, in July 1399, Bolingbroke sailed for England to fight for his inheritance. Once he arrived in England his struggle gained its own momentum as disaffected nobles rallied round Bolingbroke as a symbol of their grievances. By September Richard was a prisoner at Pontefract Castle and Henry Bolingbroke was made king as Henry IV. Thirteen year old Henry of Monmouth was knighted, and was now heir to the throne.
Westminster Abbey, London
From the beginning of his father's reign Prince Henry was employed fighting constant rebellion, in Wales led by Owen Glendower, and amongst the nobles who had originally given Henry IV his throne. Prince Henry took easily to a soldier's life, and by 1408 the threat from the nobles had subsided, and Glendower had been starved out of his last stronghold at Harlech Castle. Soon, however, Henry IV was ill, and his son was preparing to be king himself. The final scenes of Henry IV's life are vividly portrayed by Shakespeare. He is described as having fainted while making an offering at the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. The ailing king was then carried to the Jerusalem Chamber. The crown was placed on a pillow beside the king's head. Thinking Henry had died, his son and heir Henry of Monmouth picked up the crown and took it away. But then the king revived, and is supposed to have asked his son what right he had to the crown when his father had none. Prince Henry is reputed to have replied: "As you have kept it by the sword, so I will keep it while my life lasts." The king is then supposed to have given a last speech of advice to his son, to be cautious in prosperity, patient in adversity, to ignore evil councillors and love his brothers. King Henry died on 20th of March 1413.
The Globe Theatre, London
The new king, Henry V, then quickly set about the aggressive foreign policy that was to make him famous. He put down an attempted rebellion by the lollards, a forerunner of the protestants. He then set about preparing to invade France. The war was legitimised with some trumped up legal nonsense, the sort of opaque rubbish that the Archbishop of Canterbury spouts so self-importantly at the beginning of Shakespeare's Henry V. I remember reading this when I was at school thinking I had to understand it. Thankfully it's not meant to be understood. National identity, and the history of European royal families are so closely intertwined, that lines can be drawn anywhere. Henry then played the old trick of asking for concessions that could not possibly be met - the crown of France, the king's daughter in marriage - and then declared war when these demands were not met.
Preparations for an invasion of France went quickly ahead. An attempted rebellion against Henry, led by Richard Earl of Cambridge, failed miserably, and with an army of about 10,000 men Henry left for France. First the English besieged Harfleur, now a suburb of Le Havre. The town fell, but many English soldiers died of dysentery, leaving only around 6000. Henry now had a choice between going back home, or doing some highly risky marching about in northern France. Remarkably he ignored sensible advice to go home and decided to march one hundred and sixty miles to Calais. On 8th October 1415 Henry left the safety of Harfleur and set off towards Calais. Reaching the river Somme he found his path blocked by wrecked bridges and guarded fords. Marching down the Somme looking for somewhere to cross, Henry was moving his small army further and further into enemy territory. On the opposite bank of the river Marshal Boucicaut's much larger force was shadowing their march. Food was short, the weather was getting cold. Henry escaped this desperate situation by cutting across a loop in the course of the Somme while Boucicaut followed the course of the river. The English managed to pull two day's march ahead of Boucicaut, and cross the Somme virtually unopposed. There was still the problem, however, of a huge French army between Henry and Calais. By now even Henry's confidence was faltering.
The armies met near the village of Maisoncelles on 24th October, the French army taking up a position across the road to Calais. From a nearby hill the English could see the field where the enemy intended to fight. About halfway down the field and towards the left, was a village called Agincourt. Henry realised his army was outnumbered by three to one and offered terms to return to England and pay for damage inflicted on Harfleur. The French thinking they had Henry cornered, refused. Battle was to take place the following day, Friday 25th of October 1415. The portrayal of long night hours of waiting is one of the most unforgettable scenes in Shakespeare's play. Priests heard confessions, wills were written, and soldiers were reassured by a "touch of Harry in the night".
Agincourt Square, Monmouth
In the morning Henry rose at dawn and put on his stately regalia. He decided to fight where trees narrowed the battlefield near Agincourt village. This would prevent French attacks from behind his small army. The English took up position with men at arms in the centre, and archers on each flank. Then they waited, for three hours. Finally Henry's men advanced to within bowshot range of the French. After archers had driven a line of pointed wooden stakes into the ground pointing ahead of them, the battle began with a barrage of arrows from English longbows. A massive French charge was then disastrously bunched by the proxmity of trees, and by a hail of arrows from bowmen on the flanks. Such was the crush the French could hardly move to defend themselves. English soliders moved in and simply butchered the French. It was all over in half an hour.
Henry followed his victory with two further campaigns, spreading his influence in Normandy via Caen, which was attacked and sacked. Then from late July 1418 until 1419 Rouen was besieged. The French were hopelessly divided between the Armagnac and Burgundian factions, so no relief came to Rouen. The story of Rouen's defeat is a very sad one. As supplies dwindled, the poor, the women, the children and the old people were pushed out of the city in the middle of winter. These people starved to death between the English lines and the city walls. Priests leant over the walls and exorted the dying to die well. At least when Rouen finally gave up Henry refrained from sacking the city and fed starving survivors.
With the English threatening Paris, Burgundian and Armagnac factions had a meeting at Montereau bridge, south east of Paris. The plan was to unite against Henry. Seemingly the only thing that holds a country together is a threat from outside it, a theme which is made much of by Shakespeare in Henry V. In the case of Burgundians and Armagnacs not even the English threat was enough to bring unity. Duke John of Burgandy was killed on Montereau bridge by the Armagnacs. Duke John's son, Philip swore to avenge his father's death no matter what the consequences to France. It was against this background that the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 conceded that when Charles VI of France died, Henry would become king of France. Henry was also to marry Katherine, the French king's daughter. Henry's future as king of England and France seemed assured, and he returned as a hero to England in January 1421. But the French king had one surviving son, the "Dauphin" Charles, who had thrown in his lot with the Armagnacs. The Armagnacs and their Dauphin were not about to quietly accept an English king. So after a brief period in England with his new wife, Henry returned to France for his third campaign. Endless castles remained to be captured, and all it seemed depended on him. Even while Henry had been resting in England, his brother Clarence had blundered foolishly into military disaster at Bauge. Clarence's desire for military glory meant he faced the Dauphin's forces without waiting for his archers, the basis of English military superiority. Clarence and some of Henry's best soldiers were killed. Back Henry had to go. Returning to France he set about capturing a few towns, Chartres, Dreux, Meaux. But there was still hundreds of miles of Dauphinist territory to conquer.
By late 1421 Henry was ill, probably with dysentery. With his condition deteriorating the king made plans for the future. By now his wife Katherine had given birth to a son, but the baby was only a few months old. His brother the Earl of Gloucester was to be regent while his infant son was growing up. No place in his son's upbringing was given to his wife Katherine. But she got her revenge. She was to marry Owain Tudor, a Welsh gentleman in her household. Their grandson Henry would go on to usurp the throne of England as Henry VII , the first Tudor king. But all that lay in the future as Henry finally died at Vincennes on 31st August 1422.
All Souls College, Oxford , built to commemorate those who died at Agincourt
Henry enjoyed a wonderful reputation during his reign and afterwards. He was an English hero, credited with huge military ability. While this was to an extent true, the Agincourt campaign on which his reputation rested could easily have been a disaster. But remarkably it wasn't, and as Henry IV says in Henry IV Part 1 "Nothing can seem foul to those that win". If Henry had been defeated everything that was judged as daring and heroic about his campaign could so easily have been seen as reckless. A hero isn't far from a villian.
Henry V was buried in Westminster Abbey on 7th November 1422. Henry V's Chantry Chapel can still be visited today. His funeral helm sits between two octagonal turrets.
In 1438 All Souls College in Oxford was founded by Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury to "pray for the soul of Henry V and all those who fell in the war for the crown in France".